Tuesday morning saw a group of RSPB supporters Stepping up for Nature and convergingon Church House in Westminster to meet with Richard Benyon, Under-Secretary forthe Natural Environment & Fisheries. In that role he has responsibilityfor, among other things, biodiversity, wildlife and the Marine & CoastalAccess Act – and the purpose of our meeting with him was to discuss the issueof Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) under that Act. I was very pleased to be part of that RSPB groupgiven the opportunity to hold the Minister to account on this issue.
On 15 November, Mr Benyon had announced that the decision onthe 127 MCZs put forward, was to be delayed because of “gaps” in the scientificevidence base. This delay is worrying for everyone who cares about marine lifeand I was keen to try to get some answers on what this meant for the overalltimetable – what the government was going to do to ensure that these “gaps”were filled as quickly as possible, decisions made on designating MCZs – and thenaction taken.
Mr Benyon told us that he was keen to put in place anecologically coherent network of MCZs and that he believed that for about aquarter of the 127 proposed MCZs, there was already adequate (or nearlyadequate) scientific evidence – so it should not take long to look at these andbe ready to make decisions. For the others, he told us he had commissionedfurther work in Defra to collect evidence, including work to look at theprotection of mobile species (which may not have been properly covered by the127 zones put forward but are now being considered thanks to comments by RSPBand others). In his answers he said that decisions should be possible on thefirst MCZs by early 2013 (with decisions on other areas a few months later).Unfortunately he was not able to tell us when the protection and practicalaction would then be in place, but he did indicate that he expected in theregion of 20%+ of our waters to be covered by zones when adopted.
Overall, I was pleased with Mr Benyon’s responses – he cameacross as someone who is keen to ensure that the MCZs come into force – and aresustainable, credible and have the positive effect we are all looking for.Whether there is sufficient support for this elsewhere in Government remains tobe seen – but as his positive statements came just hours before the Chancellor’sthreats of attack on the Habitats Regulations, I think all RSPB members willwant to keep a close eye on progress on MCZs and ensure that Mr Benyon keepshis promises.